The Miracle of Freedom

U.S. Flag on Spring DayThe year 1776 was a pivotal one in American history; just the four digits grouped by themselves conjure up images of the patriots of old. In the Battle of New York, the British proved to have superior forces, and some dreadful American miscalculations cost many lives. When retreat finally was ordered, the Continental Army was in a precarious position: ammunition spoiled by heavy rains, troops exhausted, and the British fleet in command of New York’s East River. At 7:00 PM, on Thursday, August 29, the orders came to be “under arms with packs and everything.”

All through the night, they made their way to Brooklyn Landing in order to escape Long Island across the East River during the darkness of a new moon. At first, the wind was too strong. About 11:00 PM, as if by design, the wind died down, and the exodus began, boats loaded to the gunwales, oars pulling as quietly as possible, talking and even coughing forbidden.  But the boats weren’t moving fast enough. As morning approached, a large part of the army still waited to embark, and daylight would mean escape was doomed. Just at daybreak, a heavy fog settled in over all of Brooklyn. It was so thick, remembered a soldier, that one “could scarcely discern a man at six yards distance.” Even with the sun up, the fog remained dense as ever. At last, the rear guard was summoned, and climbed into the ferryboats, General Washington on the ferry stairs until the end. The final men disembarked in Manhattan about 7:00 AM. Within an hour, the enemy ships were visible, as were enemy soldiers on the shore they had left behind.[1]

Some people say there’s no such thing as God leading people on an Exodus.  But American history records that one took place on August 29-30, 1776. Nine-thousand troops escaped across a river, and not a single life was lost. Before the victories that came later, something special happened during a moment of near destruction. You can call it fate or luck, but I’m inclined to call it Providence. At just the right time, the wind died down, and the fog lingered on. The hand of God intervened so that this nation would experience the miracle of freedom.

The miracle of freedom is an old story with many chapters. One-hundred-fifty years before the Patriots, there’s the chapter about the Pilgrims, who also crossed a body of water in search of freedom. For many on the Mayflower, the primary purpose of the journey was to escape religious persecution, to find a place where they could worship, work, and serve together as they believed God was calling them to do. One-half of the original 102 passengers lost their lives in the hardship of the first year, demonstrating the fact that freedom often is purchased at a great price. If we had unlimited time, and traveled backward through the chapters, beyond the patriots and pilgrims, reformers and apostles, prophets and kings and judges, eventually we would get to the story that is the archetype for all the others, summarized in our text from the 26th chapter of Deuteronomy.  It’s the episode during which God, through Moses, led the people from slavery in Egypt, through the Red Sea waters, toward freedom in a Promised Land.

When we turn to the New Testament letter to the Galatians, we find one of the most extensive treatments of freedom in the entire Bible. The Apostle Paul helped to free the Galatians from bondage to the Law as interpreted by some Jewish-Christian teachers, and then saw another threat lurking.  The Christians of Galatia focused so much upon the leaving behind the chains of slavery that they didn’t see the danger they were moving toward.  They didn’t appreciate the fact that unbridled personal freedom can lead quickly to a state of chaos in which, paradoxically, freedom is lost for everyone.  “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters,” Paul said. “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence ….”

Self-indulgence, too, is part of the old story of freedom. Again and again, we read about sin rearing its ugly head, with the result that freedom becomes chaos. The resulting pain and suffering is so bad that eventually people see that only God can save them. Though it sometimes takes hundreds of years, God’s amazing grace prevails.

If we move forward in history beyond the pilgrims and patriots, then each of our families has a chapter in the story.  Some of those episodes have long receded from the family lore, and are known only to God. But some of us can update the history of freedom with stories from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, right up to the present day.

One such story might be told by imagining the view from the Statue of Liberty. From the observation deck during one particular cloudy, cool autumn day in 1951, you could have looked in a northeasterly direction toward the bustling metropolis, and seen the grand architecture of the Empire State Building towering above the skyline. Then, in a southeasterly direction, toward where the Narrows open into the Atlantic Ocean, you might have watched a black silhouette cutting its way through the grayness, a converted troop transport ship named the “General Blatchford.”  If you had a pair of binoculars, and were particularly steady holding them, you might have seen, leaning over the railing of the ship, and peering through the plumes of mist, an 18-year-old boy, scanning the horizon for his first glimpse of the statue. That boy was traveling with his father, mother, and younger brother. They had escaped from the family farm, moved through broken battlefields, experienced the loss of a son and brother in one of the most deadly battles in all history, and the imprisonment of another by the Russians. After years of waiting, they were now arriving in America to start a new life. That 18-year-old boy was my father.

I don’t think he knew much about the poem on the statue, with its words, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free,” but he did know Christ. His family was devout, and he’d just been baptized a few years earlier. He knew that Christians in the United States had sponsored his family’s journey and promised them employment. In a short time, he would enlist in the United States Army, and go on to be a productive worker, a dependable father, and an engaged citizen, right up to the time when cancer began to pull him away from us, and there was nothing else to rely on anymore except the medicine of hospice, the love of his wife, and the grace of God.  I’ve always been more conscious of my mother’s influence upon the formation of my faith and call to ministry.  But, when I take time to think about it, I know I owe a large debt of gratitude to my father and his family for my ability to enjoy the miracle of freedom.

This week, most of us will celebrate Independence Day with gatherings of one kind or another. Somewhere in the mix of friends, food, and fireworks, remember to give thanks for those who have laid the foundation for freedom. May we always honor the sacrifices of our fathers and mothers. And may we never forget that the miracle of freedom is rooted in God’s grace.

                [1] David McCullough, 1776, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005, pp. 186-191.


~ by JohnH1962 on July 1, 2013.

2 Responses to “The Miracle of Freedom”

  1. I know we’ve had the 1776 conversation before. I enjoyed the book and focus on the desperate situation Washington was in and realizing how close they came. I’ve always had a picture of dad on that ship as they reached their destination and my picture may have a little more color as I have the shirt that was on his back that day in my closet.

  2. Excellent! I had forgotten there still is a shirt.

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